I love watching skilled craftsmen working. They exude a sense of relaxed, effortless focus, a concentrated calmness that belies the years of training and application, the compromises and sacrifices, the endless hours of drills and practice.
And there’s a stillness that surrounds a craftsman in full flight that I find profoundly relaxing and at the same time breathlessly exciting. They make their craft look so natural and easy… they look like they’re having fun! And they make you think, just now and again, just for a fleeting moment, that you could do it too.
And if they’re at the very top of their game, they think nothing of dropping in the occasional human touch. Nothing as crude as a flaw, absolutely not! Just a tiny flourish that stamps their individual signature on the work, and lets the discerning observer know that this work is the work of a genuine craftsman.
And so it is with the new album from multi-award winning trio The Young ‘Uns. This is folk music as a proper craft, honed by the application of natural talent through a lifetime of dedication.
The opening salvo, an a capella, three-part harmony describing the light and dark of today’s England as viewed from a moving train, is an immediate calling card. This is hard-core folk with no compromise. And yet the sheer beauty of the melodies and harmonies, and the simple truths they deliver, draw you in and make you feel quite at ease with that no nonsense approach.
The careful – read “pedantic” if you must – listener will note that the synchronisation in the harmonies is, just once or twice, not precisely robotic. There are even one or two spots where the three guys take breaths moments apart.
But that’s just the craftsman’s flourish, the note to the audience that they are experts, that the collective experience of performer and audience singing and listening trumps robotic execution. And that they’re having fun being ridiculously good at what they do.
I’m often slightly ill at ease when I hear modern references in folk songs. Mobile phones and motorways can scan poorly in folk lyrics, or feel forced and laboured in less skilled hands.
But in the hands of songwriters and arrangers of the level on display here, there is no such discomfort. It occurs to me immediately that 150 years ago, blacksmiths and blackguards, sailors and pretty maidens all in a row were, after all, modern life.
And so one might easily imagine that in 150 years from now, these songs, tales of immigrants’ struggles against prejudice, or refugees risking everything crossing oceans (“Dark Water”, straight on to the list of my favourite songs), or the timeless soldier longing for home might be sung and re-sung with a similar nostalgia to that enjoyed by the current folk scene with its standard library.
I do hope so. In the meantime, today, I can strongly recommend that you switch off your mobile phone, disconnect from your internet, and sit back and revel in this demonstration of true craftsmanship.
Strangers is out on September 29thon Hereteu Records.